Of docks and churches and libraries and love

Over the past few weeks, promises that once tethered me to the dock of my life have been released, and I’ve found myself flailingtreadingchurningdrifting through open water–a place that, at this age, I never expected to be. A place I never wanted to be. Still, here I am.

Some people, when they find themselves unmoored, seek grounding in a church. Me, I go to the library.

It has been a long, long time since I’ve believed in the Catholic god of my childhood. The other day in the car, as I listened to the litany of suffering and suffering-to-be that is every newscast now,  I realized that I find much more solace in the idea that there is no god controlling what happens to us. Such a god would be a pretty mean bastard, it seems to me. I prefer the idea that life’s unjust cruelties occur randomly or through the will of damaged people. It feels more kind.

For me, God–if I can even call something that–has to do with love and truth and how they intertwine and grow among and between us, here on earth, a phenomenon both intangible and real that deepens life’s joys and carries us through its miseries. I find and feel it often in public libraries and schools, where we humans offer up freely to each other all that we do and know and wonder and imagine and dream. If there isn’t something holy about a space in which all can enter and seek, in the company of others, what they need to survive and understand their experiences, then I don’t know what holiness is.

So the other day, after Facebook blind-sided me with a memory of a time six years ago, not long after those promises were made, when the pleasures of my life–light, nourishment, security, love–shone through everything in my posture and face as I gazed at the person taking my photo, and I suddenly understood in a visceral way that the foundation of that life (as well as many of its pleasures) is gone, I sought shelter, answers, communion, and comfort in the library.

All those rows and rows of books, with their multitude of words capturing myriad lives through time and space, affect me the same way that mountains and oceans do:  My smallness in the face of their immensity reminds me that while my own life is everything to me, it is also, in the grand scheme of the universe, nearly nothing, a mere speck of being passing through whatever our world is, which existed long before I did and will long after I do not. In the midst of an existential crisis, this comforts me as much as my belief that the God of my childhood is a fiction.

I wandered listlessly for a bit through the new book shelves, the fiction and home repairs and self-help, even the cookbooks, searching for something I wouldn’t know I’d been seeking until I found it. It wasn’t until I drifted into a section I long ago lost faith and interest in–poetry–that anything called to me. (You know what they say about atheists and foxholes.) It was there that I found Dorianne Laux’s The Book of Men, and in that book was Staff Sgt. Metz, a character who reminded me so much of my son, “alive for now…/…in his camo gear/and buzz cut, his beautiful new/camel-colored suede boots” that I had to keep reading.

Three stanzas in, I found a version of me, too– “a girl torn between love and the idea of love”–and in that girl’s experience of hating her brother for leaving her to fight a war “no one understood,” I heard echoes of the one that has frayed to a few threads the promises I’ve been holding so tightly to, the ones I’ve had to finally admit have not been kept.

It wasn’t until the closing stanza that I found the words I didn’t know I was looking for:

“I don’t believe in anything anymore:
god, country, money or love.
All that matters to me now
is his life, the body so perfectly made,
mysterious in its workings, its oiled
and moving parts, the whole of him
standing up and raising one arm
to hail a bus, his legs pulling him forward,
and muscle and sinew and living gristle,
the countless bones of his foot trapped in his boot,
stepping off the red curb.”

Somehow–look, I don’t know how it works and trying to explain it wouldn’t–some alchemy fused these words with my questions and pain to form an understanding that might contain a seed of salvation:

Love is not, as I’ve thought for most of my life, the dock. It is the water.

How I have lived 53 years without seeing this bewilders me. Maybe, if I had understood when I was the age of Staff Sgt. Metz and that girl and my son, what was dock and what was water, I would not find myself where I am now. But maybe not. What I am learning–in truth, what I have been learning over and over again, throughout my life–is something I might not have been able to bear knowing then:  There is no permanent solid ground. We are always just one loss away from the necessity of reinvention. At any moment we could step off the red curb and into an intersection from which we can never step back.

All that matters to me now is the fleeting body of my one life, so perfectly made and mysterious in its workings. What matters is that the bones of it not be trapped, and that the whole of me stands up, and that my legs keep moving forward.

 

 

 

I am my brother’s keeper. And so are you.

I’m thinking of my brother Joe on his birthday today. For two weeks each year we are the same age, but on New Year’s Eve he takes a step ahead of me again. In the back of my mind, all through my life, I’ve known that one of my roles is to be my brother’s keeper. It is only in recent years that I have been able to see him more fully for who he is in his own right, separate from me.

What we all wouldn’t give, those of us who know him, to have fuller access to the brilliant mind we have only been able to see at a glimpse. When Joe was preschool age, in a program focused on teaching such life skills as toileting and eating with utensils, his teachers one day realized he was reading. My parents credit Sesame Street and The Electric Company–as well as Joe’s intelligence–for that self-taught accomplishment. When we were teen-agers, he used to sit on the living room floor each afternoon and write a sports report on a manual typewriter, perfectly capturing the voice of sports reporters. He still reads the newspaper every day, follows politics, listens to religious talk radio (that one’s a puzzler for us), watches sitcoms from our childhood, and tunes into every televised game the Seattle Seahawks and Mariners play. He adores dogs. When we were kids, he taught ours to chase cars. Some of you might remember him running along the side of the road in front of our house, barking at cars as they drove past, our terrier mutt Fritzie at his heels. (The 70s were a different time, eh?)
 

Joe was not accurately diagnosed (with autism) until we were in our early 20s–which means that his entire formal education failed to address many of his actual needs or develop his intellectual potential. Academics were basic and played a minimal role in his schooling, which is outrageous to me now but did not seem wrong then. Joe was already 10 when we passed the law that guaranteed a free and appropriate education to all children, and I think my parents were grateful that he was in school at all.

While the shifts in understanding and acceptance of autism that have happened in our lifetime are wonderful to see, wondering how things might have been different for him and our family if he’d been born at a later time is a mental path I rarely travel down because it is too painful (and pointless). A lack of services and understanding have limited his life to a degree I can hardly express. The world is a dangerous place for a young, mute man who cannot/will not comply with social norms, such as following directives from police officers. My parents have done what they felt they needed to do to keep him safe in it. (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for the lose.) 

It has long seemed wrong to me that Joe’s care has been primarily the responsibility of our family alone. I am my brother’s keeper, but Joe is his own person, with his own feelings, needs, habits, and dreams. (After “graduating” from high school–which meant only that he turned 21 and was no longer eligible for educational services– he told our dad that he wanted to go to college, “like Rita.”) Joe belongs to the world as much as any of us do. What happens to the Joes in our society who do not have a safety net of family? What happens to Joe if the one beneath him frays and cannot hold? How do we value and care for those among us who cannot fit into all of our round holes? Or any of them? How can we better support them in being their full, autonomous selves?

Joe is my brother, but he–like any of us–is fundamentally yours, too. We haven’t done very well by him, in many ways. Later today, he’ll be opening a dog calendar from me. It’s what I give him every year. He’ll hang it in my parents’ utility room and faithfully turn its page on the first of every month, and he’ll be happy to have it. He seems to love those calendars. It’s fine for what it is, but I sure wish I–we– could give him more, and that in the pages of the days in the coming year he might find, in addition to cute dog photos, a life with more independence, freedom, and connection to his fellow humans. I hope that, for Joe, as we are coming to know better, we can do better. I hope it’s not too late for the boy who was born too soon.

 

And so this is Christmas

There are the children’s ornaments, one to commemorate each of their years, turning the tree into a time capsule of their youth. And here are the cookies your grandma used to make, and the tablecloth your great-grandmother crocheted. As you take out of their styrofoam boxes each of the ceramic North Pole houses your father collected in the ’90s, remember how your son used to love them and was so good about not touching the reindeer and elves, even though he wanted so badly to play with them. He’s grown up now, and now the village lives here, in your house, even though he does not. Your daughter is, too, though she still likes to snuggle her pup (who’s turned into an old dog), and she still wants her apple cut up like sunshine.

One night, after the gifts have been opened and the stockings emptied and the logs in the fireplace lit, you’ll find yourself returning to the words of a Yeats poem that haunted you 30 or more years ago. Even though you are not yet grey, or even old (not really, not yet), you’ll understand them in a way you didn’t then, and you’ll wonder at the mysteries science can’t explain–how you somehow knew (when it seems you couldn’t have, because so many of the pages in your book were still blank and could, in theory or fantasy, be filled with any number of possibilities) that those words were meant for you, that for you love, even at Christmas (or especially at Christmas), would be a pacing thing that hides amid a crowd of stars.

All the light we cannot see

My girl is back, and the house feels right in a way that it hasn’t in months and months and months. I haven’t been locking my bedroom door before going to bed at night, the way I do when I’m the only one sleeping here. Every night when I turn the little knob in the handle, I know I’m being silly. I know that no one is going to break in while I am sleeping. I know that even if someone were to try, that flimsy lock would be scant protection from harm. I feel the absurdity all the more when I consciously choose to leave the door unlocked the first night Grace is home.

Maybe she will need to come in during the night, I think, as if she were still a little girl who might need her mother in the darkest hours of the day.

In these first days back, it is just the two of us here. She is home for break, but both of us are still working. She has papers to write, and I have an all-day training to put on two days after her arrival. Her first night, a Wednesday, is my first day of migraine. I push through pain and fatigue and that constant low-level hum in my skull that keeps me from the sleep I need to conquer the headache. Every Thursday meal is take-out.

Friday afternoon, after the training is done and I am officially released for winter break, she tells me to go to bed. “Only for an hour,” I say. “I need to get my sleep back on track.” Nearly two hours later she wakes me, and we order a pizza. “Tomorrow we are eating real food,” I promise.

The next day I am supposed to attend a work-related meeting, but that night I hardly sleep. I’ve been trying not to take any more meds–I’m already over the recommended dose for the week, and in the past year there have been some stern conversations with me about that in which words such as “heart attack” and “stroke” have been used–but I can’t stand the pain any more. I swallow a pill at 4:00 AM, counting on the odds to be in my favor, so she won’t have to deal with any heart attack or stroke while she’s here alone with me.

Later that morning, after waking again, I’m still in migraine fog, but the pain has lifted. I miss my meeting, knowing that if I go I am guaranteeing myself another night like the one I’ve just had, and I don’t want to play medication roulette again.

We have a slow day. I putter, picking up the worst of the week’s clutter. We talk. She procrastinates on the paper due by 9:00 pm. I take a shower mid-day and go to the grocery store, so I can make good on my promise to cook real food. I give her feedback on her paper, the way I used to do when she was in high school. She clicks “send” on it, and I make popcorn and we watch a movie, snuggled together with the dogs.

Sunday morning I sleep in–finally–and wake with my head almost clear. Daisy dog and I settle in with a cup of tea and Nina Riggs’s The Bright Hour, a memoir about living while dying of cancer. Riggs and her two sons are so young–she died before turning 40–that I can hardly stand reading it, but I do because the writing is so beautifully sharp, like sunshine on snow.

It is when she writes about wondering how to tell her sons that she is going to die, and I remember mine at the ages hers are in the memoir, that I have to take a break from it. During the year his dad and I were coming apart, Will had trouble sleeping. (Oh, nuts and trees, nuts and trees…) I would let him get out of bed and lie on the couch while I sat at the nearby computer, prepping for my next day’s lessons. When I was finally done working for the day, he’d be asleep. I would pick him up to carry him to bed, his arms gripping my neck as he breathed into it, his long legs dangling from my hips. I knew that in maybe less than a year, I’d no longer be able to carry him that way; he’d be too big and I’d be too small. The idea that there would be nights I couldn’t because we’d be sleeping under different roofs, that I would not be able to carry him because I wouldn’t be there, wrecked me. Reading now, this morning so many years from then, I can hardly stand to imagine all the feelings Riggs didn’t put into her book–or, at least, the feelings I imagine I would have had if, instead of a divorce, I’d been facing a terminal diagnosis.

I go to Facebook and distract myself with photos of friends, many from my own childhood. One has a son who just graduated from college. Others are cooking or attending parties or–more so than usual in this most wonderful time of the year–missing parents and grandparents who are forever gone. I see a message from my first best friend; we have both just celebrated birthdays. I reply, reminiscing about the time it snowed during our joint slumber party, and I feel myself choking up.

I miss her so. There are so many people I miss now. In response to my last post here, a cousin wrote, “I sure feel that I have missed much of your life.” Yes. Yes, we have missed much of each others’ lives. I remember the time she lived at our grandparents’ house, an interim stop on her flight from her parents’ nest. When I’d visit, she’d drive me to Baskin Robbins for ice cream and polish my nails, and we’d sleep together in her bed. I remember lying there in the dark, under the eaves of a house none of us can now go home to, listening to her tell me stories about her mother and her sisters and her fiance, who was living in another state for reasons I don’t remember, and I miss her and our grandmother and that house.

I think about the horribly corny movie Grace and I watched on Friday (The Christmas Prince), which we howled through because it was so full of terrible cliches. When the main character tells a child that her dead parent is always with her and never really gone, I think:  That’s such bullshit. Why do we tell each other these things that aren’t true?

I cuddle the dog, sip the tea, wondering when Grace will get up. I think about how I so often feel when I am alone in the house, contemplating what I assume will be my future, and how it feels so different now, just knowing that she is sleeping in the room beneath me and will soon come up the stairs, groggy from sleep.

I think about how I missed half the nights of the second half of my son’s childhood. About how I have missed  years of the lives of people I love. About how I am entering the third year of missing half of Cane’s days, and he mine. It is not enough to send cards or exchange Facebook messages or see each other once every few years. We need to share meals and errands and hugs. We need to carry each other to bed, whisper truths in our shared dark.

Unlike Nina Riggs, I am still alive, and I find myself wondering what I would want, how I would live if, like her, I learned on the night of winter solstice that my condition was eminently terminal–that I could not count on years in which to figure out what is essential and what can be–should be–let go.

I wonder why it is only in the not-something that I see so clearly what a something is. That it is only in my girl’s absence that I have seen all the things most precious in the life we once shared, and that it is only in her presence again that I am seeing the true outlines of all that my solitude does and does not hold.

Autolessonography

It’s my birthday today, and birthdays alway get me thinking about big, heavy, existential questions–like, what’s the meaning of life? (Hey, clearly I was born this way. That’s a pretty serious baby in that photo up there.)

As mine approached this year, I found myself reflecting on all the things life has taught me in my various trips around the sun–which got me thinking that a list of such lessons might make a cool sort of autobiography. (This is what play looks like for me. See? I can have/be fun, too!)

So, here’s my autolessonography. Would love to see yours, if you’re  inclined to write one.

  1. Walking is better than crawling, but crawling will get you there.
  2. A grandma’s lap is soft and safe.
  3. We cannot walk into other people’s houses as if they are our own.
  4. When your grandma tells you that you can choose a stuffed animal to take home, legs that hurt so much they couldn’t take another step can suddenly sprint down the aisle of Newberry’s.
  5. The world contains wrongs that others will not see or respond to, even when you point them out to those who have the power to right them–such as that in kindergarten, only the boys can build things with the super-cool cardboard bricks and only the girls can play in the boring pretend kitchen.
  6. The purpose of first grade is learning to read, which is worth enduring the petty tyrannies of school.
  7. Happiness is a warm puppy, and contentment is writing at a desk in Mrs. Smallwood’s classroom while the radiator clangs and rain taps against the second-story window panes.
  8. Sadly, there is no Marguerite Henry for canine lovers, and a fervent equine passion would create more intimate bonds with your human friends, but we can only love what we actually love, even if we are loving it mostly by ourselves.
  9. Written words read aloud can fill a room with a kind of silence that feels the opposite of empty.
  10. As your age increases, the number of gifts you get at Christmas decreases.
  11. Pluto is a planet, and reports about planets are boring and stupid, especially if your planet is the smallest one and you have to write it with others who don’t do their share of the work.
  12. We can be cruel for reasons we do not understand.
  13. There is, perhaps, nothing lonelier than being the only sober person at the party.
  14. If you grow your hair long and get your braces off and ditch your glasses and your body slows its growing upward just enough to start growing out, boys who never cared about you suddenly will, giving you attention that feels like equal parts desire and disregard.
  15. Being popular requires skills that can be learned.
  16. The colors of the cars in the pictures on the driving test are not part of some code that reveals the correct answers to the questions.
  17. Sometimes, the wrong people die.
  18. Breaking up with a boy who treats you badly because he is too chickenshit to break up with you will gut you because you know that you’re the one who’s really being dumped, and, sadly, mustering up a modicum of self-respect is a comfort so small it’s no salve for the wound.
  19. Free-falling from the nest into open air is exhilarating and terrifying and exhausting and lonely.
  20. If you buy three weeks’ worth of underwear, you don’t have to do laundry very often.
  21. Your ideas about who people are–including yourself–can be delightfully wrong.
  22. A life of the mind is worth cultivating, even if it breeds discontent. Maybe especially if it breeds discontent.
  23. Despite what everyone has told you, you can, in fact, get a “real job” through the want ads.
  24. Cubicles will never be for you.
  25. Wandering into a mall pet store because the record store isn’t open yet and walking out with a puppy is the type of impulse purchase one is likely to regret.
  26. Moving away from all of your friends and family to start a new career in a new city will put a strain on a young marriage that can break it.
  27. We are capable of doing things we never thought we could, in ways both good and terrible.
  28. Second weddings can be better than first ones, even if they are tinged with sadness and regret and a deep understanding that so many more things than death can do the parting.
  29. Alcoholic loggers in small-town mountain bars can be wiser and more well-read than those with college degrees.
  30. Life can blind-side us in ways we could never imagine, anticipate, or prepare for.
  31. The idea that God never gives you more than you can handle is a bunch of crap.
  32. Barrenness has its own kind of beauty.
  33. Conceiving your children with your feet in stirrups and your legs spread wide in a bright, sterile room while your doctor and husband chit chat about their golf games is a loss so cloaked in privilege it feels wrong to be anything but grateful (but it’s not, something you won’t truly understand until you hit lesson #43).
  34. Once you become a parent, you can never again be nonchalant about your own existence.
  35. Every child in every classroom is as beloved to someone as your child is to you–which means you can never again give your students anything less than your best.
  36. Some years there are no memorable lessons, which is its own kind of lesson.
  37. If you are a poet, you are a poet. An award does not make this any more or less true, especially the morning after you win it.
  38. Your children can be the love of your life.
  39. When the children were toddlers and wouldn’t potty-train and you assured yourself, “They won’t be wearing Pull-Ups in kindergarten,”  you were right. Which means you won’t have an elaborate tucking-in ritual to perform every night when they are in middle school–and you’ll likely miss that when it’s gone, too.
  40. You may not realize that your only real friend is your only real friend until she is suddenly gone and you have no one to grieve that loss with or help you understand what it means about your life that you have no real friends in it.
  41. If you have to hide who you are to keep someone’s love, you never really had it.
  42. The beautiful, painful, uncomfortable poignancy of human existence will often coalesce on the pinpoint of a singular, absurd moment–such as one on a cold January night when a group of late-middle-aged women dress their lumpy, bumpy bodies as angels in white tights and leotards and dance, badly, with solemn earnestness in a school cafeteria for a small-town Christmas recital that was delayed from December because of inclement weather, and the fathers of the young girls who are also dancing in said recital agonize over where to put their eyes and how to compose their faces and how to dance the line between their mirth and disdain such that they will neither incur the wrath of their wives nor betray the women their own daughters may grow to be.
  43. Sometimes we cannot comprehend pain fully until we are relieved from it.
  44. You will take calculated risks to follow a dream because your daughter is watching and when she is your age you want her to follow her dreams, even if it’s not entirely safe–because you know now that following dreams is never entirely safe.
  45. One person’s calamity is another person’s opportunity.
  46. It’s probably good to consider the person who, someday, is going to hate that wallpaper you think is such a good idea today.
  47. Starting over is never-ending.
  48. A person can write a new chapter to a story in your life that you thought was finished, and it will make you revise all the ones that came before it.
  49. Your children will feel pain that you are powerless to alleviate, and that will hurt worse than any of your own.
  50. You should never tolerate abuse in your own home. Ever. From anyone. No matter what it costs to end it.
  51. Story-telling is powerful good magic.
  52. Our hearts can break over and over and over but it doesn’t mean we are broken.
  53. Real love is never conditional, and our capacity to give it is limitless.

 

There but for the grace of

“I was going to learn how to have fun, dammit…. I … was going to become someone who not only could LOL, but would LOL. Because I was going to lighten the fuck up and find inner peace…”
–From the About page of this blog

I come from a family of women who laugh.

Ours was riddled with abuse, addiction, and abandonment, but I didn’t understand that when I was a girl. What I remember most was the adults around me laughing, over everything and nothing. I knew, in a vague, abstract way, that some hard things were happening, but none of it seemed as if it could be all that bad because no matter what was going on in other places, when we were together everyone was laughing.

It wasn’t until my grandfather died suddenly of a heart attack, when I was just 16, that anything about this struck me as wrong. His death came weeks after that of a great-uncle, leaving both my grandmother and her sister mid-life widows, and instead of that of my bedridden great-grandmother, who told the grieving daughters caring for her that God should have taken her instead. As they gathered in the kitchen to make meals and plan another funeral, they did cry, a little, but still they laughed.

“How can they sit around laughing?” I demanded of my father, furious–with fate, with God, with my laughing family.

“It’s how they cope,” he said. “If they weren’t laughing, they’d all be falling apart.” I didn’t understand. I was falling apart, and I knew laughter wasn’t going to hold me together.

I always felt one of them, but also different from them, light where they were dark and dark where they were light. When I was a little girl, they called me The Judge, because I was so sober and serious (and judgey). “Here come the judge, here come the judge,” my grandmother and her sister would sing, just like Sammy Davis, Jr. on Laugh-In, cracking themselves up.

As I grew older, I came to think of us as a family of women. There were a few boys–in fact, I arrived at the tail-end of a cluster of them:  my brother Joe, my cousins Michael and Tom, and I were all born within the span of a year. But these were my mother’s people, and the women were the ones who remained constant. Many of my cousins had fathers and step-fathers who just weren’t there. When I was young, I didn’t know where they’d gone. I thought that when people divorced, the dads just left, permanently. It wasn’t odd or bad to me; that’s just how it was.

That many of us had been born to hurriedly-wed teen-age mothers was also just a part of the family landscape. It wasn’t anything talked about, usually, but it also wasn’t something hidden. That, too, was just how it was. One night, after Tom’s  wedding, we all ended up at a bar where the band played “Why Must I Be a Teenager in Love?” and  “I Could Have Danced All Night,” which were met with peals of snort-laughter as the women of my family named each of those who should have danced all night when they were teenagers in love.

As I got older, I came to believe my difference had something to do with fathers and delaying childbirth and staying married. My mother’s father, my grandmother’s second husband, was one of the few who didn’t leave. So was my own. My mother was a teen when she married, but she’d graduated from high school, lived on her own for a bit, and wasn’t pregnant when she walked down the aisle of her church on the arm of her father, who handed her to mine. I believed that difference had given me a leg up in life, and wanting to give that to my children kept me in a damaging marriage far longer than I should have stayed.

My cousin Shannon, sister of Michael and the next-born after me, was the daughter of one of the hurriedly-wed mothers who later divorced. When we were kids, Shannon was bubbly and funny and cute and fun–the opposite of me in almost every way–but my natural ally against the boys. She balanced the gender equation of those of us relegated to the kids’ table by our common birth year, for which I was always grateful. She died recently, just a few months shy of her 50th birthday.

I wish I could tell you that her death was due to an accident or a random illness, but it was neither of those things. I wish I could tell you that after we both became adults we remained close, but that’s not what happened, either. The last time I saw her, I hadn’t seen her for years, and her appearance shocked me. She was only in her late 30s or early 40s, but she looked years older. I could see the features of the pretty girl in her lined face, and she still laughed easily, but I could also see on her body the years of pain she carried within it. I felt shy with her, wanting two contradictory things simultaneously:  To both hold her close and to hold her at arms’ length–not just because I no longer knew her and she felt foreign, but also because I wanted her to be foreign. I wanted her to be not-me. I wanted to believe that my life contained nothing of whatever had done what it had to her.

I don’t know the particulars of much of her story, but as I worked to absorb the news of her death amid a cacophony of stories about predatory men, it seemed to me that one of the most salient facts of her life might have been that she was born into a marriage that began when her mother was a young teen and her father–a violent, abusive alcoholic–was an adult. Sure, he was young and (I’m guessing) immature and not all that many years older than the girl who would become his wife, but he was old enough to be a soldier on liberty. She wasn’t old enough to drive.

As I worked to absorb the news of Shannon’s death, listening to the torrent of words coming from all the people explaining and excusing and castigating and talktalktalktalking  about the Harvey Weinsteins and Bill Clintons and Roy Moores of this world, sneaker waves of grief and rage rose within me, waves of feeling that were painful in large part because having them felt like some kind of weakness or ingratitude or claiming of that which isn’t really mine to own.

I mean, wasn’t I the lucky one? My father didn’t leave and my parents weren’t mentally ill and I didn’t live in poverty and no one beat my mother in front of me or fucked me when I was still a child–all experiences in the histories of others in my family.

Still, as I worked to absorb the news of Shannon’s death, I struggled through nights of insomnia and days of migraine (those twin companions more constant than any man I’ve known) while my brain hamster-wheeled with questions about whether or not my third marriage (which isn’t even really a marriage) is going to survive or whether it should and why I cannot seem to build a life that can sustain any kind of lasting physical and mental health and if I could keep it together until my next therapy appointment and why, whywhywhyfuckingwhy is it that, when I seem to have more than so many other people in the world, this life so often feels unbearably bleak?

Here is the thing I’ve come to realize in the wake of my cousin’s death and the torrent of stories about men who prey upon girls and women–the thing I didn’t understand when I felt the instinct to keep Shannon at a distance and through all the years I worked so hard to escape the kinds of fates I saw all around me (but in important ways didn’t):  Their acts are choking vines that grow and grip and curl around all the branches of a family tree, blocking sunlight, stealing nutrients, stunting growth, causing harm to the entire organism. When I look at those of us descended from my grandmother and her sister, every one of us in my generation has lived a life marked by broken relationships, broken health, or broken children. Often, all three.

There is not one thing funny about any of this, but I can see now that the laughter I grew up with didn’t stem from obliviousness to suffering or denial of it, but was instead a means of surviving it. Laughter was the way the women in my family turned their faces toward whatever light they could find shining through dense canopies of pain; it’s the way they pushed their children toward that light and pruned back the tendrils reaching for us. It’s what kept them from drowning our roots in tears.

I come from a family of women who laugh, women who did everything they could to nurture the tender twig of a girl that was me, a girl who mugged for the camera with her cousin in their matching t-shirts, both of them all full of bravado and sass and joy, two points of light in a field of darkness who knew–at least in that moment–that they were safe and loved.

Godspeed, cuz.

 

 

 

True Story

Anne Lamott rather famously wrote, ““You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Which sounds so good, doesn’t it? So empowering and simple and sure. It implies such clear lines–between your stories and mine, warm writing and cold, good behavior and bad.

Would that this were true.

I recently published a story on this blog about a reunion with an old, cherished friend, T., one I’ve seen only a few times in the past 25 years, in which I shared some of our past behavior. I asked her if she was OK with me publishing it and she said yes, but then her feelings changed.

Her shift puzzled me, and it left me feeling that perhaps our friendship wasn’t what I thought it was, or that I don’t know my friend as well as I think I do.

“Of course you don’t,” my therapist said, when I talked about this with him. “You haven’t really known her for 25 years. Are you the same person you were 25 years ago?”

“No,” I said. “But also yes.” His eyebrows raised. (I suspect my therapist and Anne might get on splendidly.)

“Both,” I said. “Both are true.” (But I wasn’t sure.)

I took the post down–which I had offered to do before T.’s feelings changed (or before she felt able to express them to me, or before she really knew them–whichever is the truth of what happened for her)–but it bothered me some to do so, and the bothering’s been niggling at me.

I’ve been trying to write about it for days bordering on weeks now, and I can’t seem to get it right, to pin down what the story of this story really is, what’s at the root of the bother and niggle.

Somewhere in the midst of wondering and writing and pondering, my blogging friend Kate shared the image at the top of this post. It sent me to the whole of the e.e. cummings poem the words in the photo are from, and in them I found a bit of an answer to at least part of the question:

(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)

In the “you” of the poem I saw not some other person, some lover, but the girl I was once was. The person I was when T. and I were young is a person I’ve had to work hard to love. I spent years trying to kill her, as if eradication were the only path to redemption. I didn’t understand, then, the truths that the poem reminds me of, now:  That anywhere I go, she goes, too, forever. That whatever I have done or will do will always be, in some ways, her doing. That I will always carry her heart within my heart. That if she was not worthy of love then, then I am not, now–because I am still her, and she is me.

Taking the post down felt too much like all the years I buried that girl, too much like there was something shameful in who we were, or, perhaps, that there was something shameful in telling our story.

Not long after I read the poem, my daughter sent me a text: “If you can’t hold love for something and critique it at the same time, you’ll never be able to love anything.” It was about an entirely unrelated matter, but everything is connected, isn’t it? It was another breadcrumb on the trail.

A few days later, another story-teller, Maria Popova, pointed me to another poem, “Love After Love,” by Derek Walcott, whose words revealed more of the story:

The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Walcott’s words helped me see that when T. arrived at my door and time telescoped and I felt a rush of familiar intimacy, as if we were still to each other what we’d once been, it was, in some sense, as if I were greeting myself arriving at my own door–that young self, the one I’d spent so many years feeling ashamed of and trying to erase–and I was nothing but elated to see her. As T. and I talked and laughed and reminisced about who we’d been and what we’d done and how those things impacted the lives we’re living today, I felt full of love not only for my friend–who she was then and who she is now–but also for the stranger who was myself. She was just a girl doing the best she could with what she knew. She was not, as I once thought, weak. She and her friend were stronger than we knew, in part because of our love of and for each other, a love that remains intact over the long distance of a life lived mostly apart. A love that was true, as I strived (but so often failed) to be. A love that holds within it the possibility of another blooming, now that we are again, as we once were in adolescence, in the midst of re-imagining and re-creating our lives.

It was all such a gift–the familiarity, the insight, the love, the hope, even–yes–the redemption–all wrapped in the package of an afternoon visit. It was a gift I wanted to share. So I told the story of it.

There is so much I don’t know. Where are the lines between my stories and those of the people I love? Which stories are ours to tell, and which are not?  How can I know if I’ve told the story right, if I’ve told it true? I suppose I’ll figure the answers out eventually–or I won’t–but what I do know is this:

I am a writer.

No matter what the events–the facts–of any of my stories are and who they most belong to, what I am telling, always, is my story, and I’m always telling the same one:  the story of figuring out how to love myself and all the other flawed humans on this planet (by which I mean, everyone). I do it with the hope that my stories of learning how to love will in some way build the same capacity in whoever reads them–the same way reading other peoples’ stories has built that capacity in me. I do it with faith that this is one of the ways to save the world.

It is my life’s work, loving this way.

I’m sure that sometimes I’ll continue to get it wrong. I am still the girl who is doing the best she can with what she knows. (Isn’t that all any of us are?) No one has silenced me more than me, and I can see now that asking myself not to write has been like asking me not to love, not to be.

And I want to live.

Photo courtesy of Kate.

Bad teeth, bad dogs, bad weeks. And Puerto Rico.

The world offered up to me a week of minor insults–an emergency trip to the vet, a date that didn’t go as planned, a several-days migraine, a nasty email, a flat tire, ridiculous lines at the fabric store, a work meeting on Saturday morning, and a broken disposal on Saturday night that spewed water, cilantro, and various other semi-rotten vegetables all over the inside of the under-the-sink cabinet.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico.

By which I mean (yes, of course) multitudes of people without food, water, homes, power–but also, everything wrong in our country right now that’s wrapped up in the reasons for Puerto Rico and that’s come out in all kinds of other ways over the past week. You know:  racism, corrupt/inept leadership, seemingly willful ignorance, our ability to be distracted and divided by lesser things, and–maybe most of all–our collective weariness and inability to be truly surprised/shocked by anything that’s going down any more. (Or is that just me? )

I found myself so longing to return to a time when I could feel free to share on Facebook the petty slings and arrows flying my way and gather sympathy in response. I did indulge in sharing a pic of the flat tire, but later that night when I thought about sharing the garbage disposal mess, it just didn’t seem like the thing to do. Because:  Puerto Rico.

I mean, how can I complain about the things bringing me down when I have food, water, shelter, and power? When I am not the target of so much that is wrong right now? When my problems, literally, would not exist if I didn’t enjoy the privileges I do?

I heard from three different friends this week that all their friends seemed to be having a particularly bad week. But it’s not a full moon and Mercury’s not in retrograde until December 3. Remember when that’s the kind of reason people looked for when it seemed like everyone was having a kinda hard time all at the same time?

What you get when you Google “is mercury in retrograde”

I know part of the reason I started crying when the vet asked, “So, how are we doing this morning?” was that I was afraid she was going to tell me that we’d have to put Daisy down and it would mean I am a shitty dog owner for letting things get so bad, and I could feel the migraine coming back for the third day, and I didn’t know how I was going to get done for work the things I’d promised to get done (I didn’t), but I think it was all of those things and Puerto Rico.

Daisy is one of the two canines living in my home that one of my children refers to as “your divorce guilt dogs.” The label is not entirely unfair. I hope I didn’t say to the child something like, “We’re going to totally disrupt your life and make you live in two different places (thereby no longer having one real home), but hey! Now you can have the dog you’ve long wanted!” but I can see how this child might have heard it that way.

I’m glad she didn’t see that I also wanted those dogs because I knew I was going to need a reason to come home on dark winter nights when there would be no homework to supervise and no squabbles to referee and no one to care if “dinner” was an entire box of Kraft macaroni and cheese eaten straight from a saucepan.

Daisy and her compatriot Rocky aren’t particularly good dogs. Because they pee and shit at will in our house despite my many attempts to persuade them to do otherwise, we’ve had to remove all the carpet from our home. (The other child and I once created a parody of the Commodores’ “Brick House” about Daisy, which opened with, “Oh, she’s a bad dog / She’s mighty naughty, just poopin’ all over the house.” ) Because they are Dachshunds, they’ve cost me thousands of dollars in dental surgery. Because I somehow didn’t believe what I read in the nano-seconds of research I did before bringing them home that told me such dogs are notoriously difficult to housebreak and and are prone to bad teeth, I have been surprised by these things.  In addition, Daisy lets us know pretty regularly that she doesn’t really give any fucks about a lot of things we care about. Like not whining all through dinner, or not eating Rocky’s poop, or coming when we call her and she is looking right at us.

I love her anyway.

She doesn’t do a lot of the things I’d like her to do, but she’s ours. The song-writing child, not long after I’d moved to a house filled with mis-matched things cobbled together from garage sales, thrift stores, and craigslist, once looked around and said with disgust, “Everything in this house is used. Even our dogs are used!”

It was true. I found them on craigslist, and Daisy wasn’t mine from the beginning, but she’s mine now. I love her, and despite the fact that she disappoints me on a regular basis and has never been quite the dog I envisioned for my children or myself, she’s the dog we have and dammit, I don’t want her to die. Not yet.

When I let one of the children know that I for-sure wouldn’t be coming for a maybe-visit in November because I’ll be paying for doggie dental surgery instead, even though the lower portion of Daisy’s jaw has so deteriorated that it has detached from the upper and cannot be repaired, she asked me, kindly, when I’d know it was time to let go.

“I mean, what’s the amount that is too much, Mom? She is just a dog, you know?”

I don’t really know, but not yet. I mean, yes, she’s just a dog–but she is also love and hope and dreams and history. Not unlike my country, which I love in ways not unlike the ways I love my dog and my kids:  Imperfectly, irrationally, deeply, unconditionally.

Even when it’s been a bad week. Even though Puerto Rico.

Because they’re mine.

 

 

 

Lost & Found

“…if you don’t get the thoughts down, they might just get lost forever.”  –Kate Carroll de Gutes

I read these words in the dark of an early, migraine-foggy Saturday morning, and they take me back instantly to my children’s infancy, when I wrote so that I wouldn’t lose all the things I was thinking–and seeing and feeling and understanding–about the profound experience of becoming a mother.

Then I think about how I haven’t written about my son’s journey to becoming a Marine, which, for me, isn’t so much about his experience of becoming a Marine as it is about my profound experience of letting him go. (Because we are all the protagonist in our own lives, right?) And I want–suddenly, urgently–to capture what I can before it is gone:

The way I found myself weirdly giddy to see a letter from him in the mailbox on Thursday afternoons, excited and anxious for mail in ways I haven’t been since I was a girl–because the boy who confided in his sister that he was surprised to miss Mom because she’s so annoying wrote to me, without fail, every week, and sometimes the letters made me laugh and sometimes they made me cry and sometimes they filled me with such deep longing and regret I will never find words big enough to capture how that felt, but it didn’t matter what kind of feelings they would bring because the over-riding emotion, always, was simple gratitude for his crabbed handwriting and his words that were evidence that he wasn’t, as I once feared, lost to me.

The utter, sterile emptiness of his room after I cleaned it up and out, and how that stripped down space seemed metaphor for what remains of my mothering, absent now of all the clutter and detritus that once filled it. There are a few, important mementos still on display, and the room remains his, but it is a room I know will now be used only occasionally, and likely never in the same way again. During boot camp, every once in a while I’d go in there and sit on the bed and look around, and although a part of me felt calmed by the lack of chaos that once defined the space, another part of me wished only to see once again the dirty laundry and discarded homework and empty wrappers and long-abandoned childhood toys that once filled it, wanted even to smell the distinct, peculiar funk of teen-age boy I once thought I’d never be able to eradicate.

The relief and release of a worry I’d been carrying for years, so long I hardly felt its weight until I was able to set it down. The picking up of a new one, and realizing that it is in some ways heavier and in others lighter, and that mothering will always be this picking up and setting down and shifting weight from one arm or hip to the other–for worry is always love swaddled in hope and fear, and I could never set that down for good.

The way I felt oddly shy when I finally saw him and could hear his voice again, how he was both the child I know intimately and a stranger whose boundaries were unclear. How he walked and stood so differently, but from behind I still saw the same sloping line of his shoulders, a cadence in the swing of his hips that remains and belongs only to him. How his brief return home was both exquisite and crucifying, the way it brought him back while nailing us to the truth that who he’d been and how he’d lived was no more, and that we’d both have to build our way to a new life and ways of being, not together, as when he was born, but mostly apart.

As I write these words, not without tears, I think again of how I was able to write so many in the first four years of my children’s lives that I actually had enough for a book, which is astounding, really–that while being ground in the mill of new-parenting (not one, but two preemies), I managed not just to string enough words together to make a book but also to sort and arrange and polish them into an award-winning one–and I see, really see, for the first time that my lamentations for years that I just couldn’t make the time to write were probably bullshit, just like all the published writers who write have always said such lamentations are.

I’m not discounting the real barriers that scarce resources create (and I’ve never met a single parent who has resources in abundance) but today, right now, I think maybe that writing about all the big things of the past decade–death and divorce and the destruction of beliefs and dreams and faith–just might have hurt too much, might have cemented into long-term memory moments that felt too painful to keep.

I got to hear my friend Kate, writer of the epigraph to this post, read recently from the book in which her words appear, and she mentioned that she hasn’t been writing and is in “a fallow time.”

“Me, too,” I said to her after the reading. “But it always comes back, doesn’t it? I’ve gone through it enough times to trust that it will.”

I thought I was saying those words for her, but I can see now, on this first Saturday morning of fall, as both the dark and the pain in my head lift, that I was probably saying them more for me. Maybe enough distance is opening between me and all that hurt that I can get the thoughts down without them taking me down, too, and before I’m so far removed from them that I’ve lost the moments of joy and beauty that are always, always entwined with pain.

Maybe.

Adulting. And stuff.

My daughter’s biggest challenges in the last year have come from learning how to adult. I feel her pain.

Although I am firmly into my 6th decade of living, when it comes to adulting I feel I could be the Imposter Syndrome poster child. I look like a fully-functioning adult. I know all kinds of things about a lot of things–you don’t even want to debate me about the Oxford comma–but I am sometimes shocked by how little I know about the basics of maintaining a life. You really can wing it/kinda fake it for a lot of things. For a really long time. Or, at least, I’ve been able to so far.

This is not an adulting desk.

But it bothers me that I don’t really know how a lot of things work and feel I have very few practical life skills. If the zombie apocalypse comes or the grid collapses or the bottom of privileged, western life falls out in some other way, I’m toast. I can function pretty well in a world with big box stores and electricity and YouTube and take-out, but I will definitely not be the fittest in any kind of basic survival contest.

I’m not really worried about doomsday scenarios, but I descend from farmers and fishermen and machinists–all self-sufficient people who knew how to grow and make and do with their hands. It bothers me to have so little skill in taking care of my own needs. I’m tired of feeling mildly (or majorly) incompetent a lot of the time, especially when it comes to feeding myself and keeping house. Also, I really like it when I occasionally do something well in these arenas.

I didn’t grow any of this not-organic food, but I made this grown-up meal all by myself.

So the other day I checked this book out of the library:

At first I thought it was going to be another lifestyle porn kind of book–and it does have gorgeous pictures with rustic tile, simple linens, and lots of things in glass jars–but it’s got a lot of substance to it:  philosophy, practical strategies, and concrete tools. Most pages look like this one:

There are a few things I particularly enjoy about Erica Strauss’s philosophical approach to food and home. The biggest one? “…don’t be afraid to take it slow at first.”

This is one of the few books I’ve read that makes me think I could actually learn how to do food and home, which makes me want to jump all in. I want to do it all–grow vegetables, can, make my own household cleaners, revamp my household routines–and I want to do it all right now! But this is what my kitchen looks like right now:

And the only way it’s going to look better is if I spend a substantial amount of each day for what’s left of the summer working on it. I’ve also got family to love, and some work to do, and….  I appreciate Strauss’s stance that “this is not an all-or-nothing thing” and that the “ultimate goal of a hands-on homekeeper is to be proactive about shaping your own healthy domestic life.” In other words, she’s not an insufferable purist about the whole thing. In fact, she’s pretty damn funny (as you can see in this post from her blog).

So I’m starting with something simple:  making natural household cleaners. I’ve wanted to do this before, but I got stymied by not knowing where to find borax and castile soap in the store. (I kid you not. I still don’t know where to find them, but if I can’t figure it out this time I’m just going to break down and order them from Amazon.)

Baby steps, baby.

Once upon a time I wrote a blog in which our basic premise was that how we do home is how we do life. I still believe that. For three years, life has been an on-hold, up-in-the-air, what-the-actual-fuck, one-transition/calamity-after-another affair. Home has been slap-dash, make-do, get-through-the-day-however-we-can-and-call-it-a-victory sort of thing. Making my own household cleaners might be only the first step on a thousand mile journey, but at least I’m finally moving, and it feels like the right direction. George Eliot wrote that “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” I generally think that’s a crock of hooey, but when it comes to this I think she’s right.

Now this is a guy with practical life skills.